Looking Back to Look Forward

ashley

*This essay was written to accompany Ashley Ronning’s exhibition ‘No Place Like Space’ held at Magic Johnson, Melbourne in February 2017.

No Place Like Space is the second solo exhibition by Melbourne-based emerging artist and designer Ashley Ronning. Ronning has been long fascinated by space and our long-standing efforts to understand and make sense of it through science, exploration and the arts. Using a colourful palette achieved through risograph printing methods, her latest series of work is an ambitious step and creative exploration that imagines what a space colony could look like, and more importantly, feel like for its inhabitants.

One of the most enduring metaphors in our popular understanding of space is between its vastness and our alienation. Our insignificance in the face of the enormity of the universe can lead to a sense of despair, but also wonderment at a force much larger than us; something we can only understand and experience in the most miniscule fashion. It is an experience in perspective.

With this in mind, is it unsurprising that popular culture and the arts continue to situate us against the loneliness of space? Recent films including Moon (2009), Gravity (2013) and The Martian (2015) depict their lead actors against the hostility and alienation of their surroundings. Space travel and habitation continues to be a point of intrigue as we come to consider the limits of human perception and experience.

Despite the current proliferation of space-themed popular media, Ronning’s biggest visual and emotional influence is another science-fiction film from 1972 Soviet Russia titled Solaris. At once grandly ambitious yet also slow-paced and quiet, this film is at its heart a love story. Pitched against an unknowable force, the protagonists of Solaris ask us to consider what we would do for love and what we are willing to sacrifice.

In a similar fashion to her previous exhibition Deep Space House Plant, Ronning’s new series of work focuses on personal lives and moments with a notable absence of human figures. The artist speaks of a ‘feeling of isolation’ that runs throughout the exhibition, a mood that is strongly felt through the personal artefacts and objects that form the core of Ronning’s subject matter. We see signs of human life and interactions in her work, but never a figure or any indication of who these people may be.

Despite this absence of bodies, the intimacy and emotional register of her subjects is maintained through Ronning’s focus on personal artefacts. From a bedroom scene to a flat spread of personal possessions, as audiences we are offered a glimpse into this private sphere. As archaeological and anthropological studies can attest to, this focus on material culture as a way to narrate human experience is not new, but in Ronning’s hands there is a deeply felt personal attachment that is highly individualised.

Rather than merely considering the practicalities of space travel, Ronning conducted extensive research for the project by asking her friends to send her pictures of their bed-side tables. At once banal and ordinary, these glimpses into an unfiltered personal life offered Ronning a means to consider what our personal treasures are without the expectations imposed by monetary value, necessity or mere pragmatism.

Although derived and inspired from contemporary examples, Ronning’s works operate in a mode of ‘retrofuturism’—a look back into the high days of space exploration and excitement of the 1970s through contemporary eyes. The artist cites the landmark modernist design of the Eames House, as well as the design of the space station in Solaris as key visual inspirations that informed her own design of Hamilton Base. We also see further visual cues to a recent past, such as in presence of a cassette tape and a yo-yo, items that were once commonplace but today are no longer.

This nostalgic re-imagining of a recent past is particularly well suited to the artist’s preferred medium of risograph printing. A digital printing method initially developed in the 1980s in Japan, risograph printing has been championed in recent years by artists and designers for producing unique and at times unpredictable print results that differ vastly from the glossy pages of commercial printing and xerographic photocopying. Riso printing can achieve a depth of colour and rich tonality that belie its digital means of production.

Using her favoured colour palette of blue, teal, pink and orange, the resulting prints of No Space like Home are an inviting glimpse into the private world of the artist’s imagined space colony, Hamilton Base. Space exploration may not be a feasible option for most of us in our lifetime, but Ronning’s work invite us to dream and imagine.

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